Egypt (British Subjects)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th June 1949.

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Motion made, and question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pearson.]

1.12 a.m.

Photo of Sir John Foster Sir John Foster , Northwich

I wish to raise a matter which is of some importance in the conduct of our foreign affairs, namely, the question of the treatment of British subjects in Egypt. The treatment of British subjects in Egypt must be taken against a background, during the last two years, of a strong spirit of nationalism on the part of the Egyptians. We have seen in Egypt a spectacle of severe riots, of measures being taken against foreigners in the employment sphere, of concentration camps being established, of night assaults being made against foreigners, of nationality law being administered so that many thousands of people who were born in Egypt are regarded by the Egyptian authorities as not being Egyptian, of unreasoning xenophobia, and so on. The attacks which have been made and the bombs which have been thrown have resulted in the deaths of foreign nationals in Egypt. We had the most tragic instance of the French Olympic coach being torn to pieces by a mob; of an American who was robbed in a taxicab by an enraged group of Egyptians and torn to pieces, and our own Chief Justice injured, I think it was, by a bomb.

Reports in the Press have shown that there are a lot of British subjects in Egypt who are unemployed through the Egyptian company law which requires that a very high proportion of the employed, whether qualified or not, should be Egyptian. It is inevitable that the incidence of these harsh measures should have fallen very largely on British subjects who are of the Jewish race, and we find among the British Jewish population in Egypt many of the features of the persecution of the Jewish race in Nazi Germany. We have the same visits by police at night—the rapping on the door, and the search. We have also the instance, which might well have occurred in Germany, of a large number of Jewish families being turned out of their homes at a few hours' notice—of men, women and children being thrown into the streets. The Egyptians, under the provisions of their martial law, have set up a system of sequestration under which businesses are confiscated from owners who are left to starve.

Dealing with the matter of protection of British subjects, I would ask the Minister of State what the situation is today? It is difficult to get accurate information from Egypt, and I hope and believe that the situation is getting better. I think it is right—even at the cost of affronting the Egyptian Government somewhat—to state for record what has happened in the last two years. I believe that in many respects the actions of the mob were perhaps contrary to the wishes of the Egyptian Government, although I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the Egyptian Government did not take sufficiently active steps to stop what was happening.

In the earlier part of this year the right hon. Gentleman informed, I think, the hon. Member for East Willesden (Mr. Orbach) that 21 British subjects of the Jewish race had been arrested and put into camps, but 12 were released. Has the right hon. Gentleman any information as to what is the state of the other nine? The right hon. Gentleman will probably remember that in July of last year our Ambassador in Egypt, Sir Ronald Campbell, complained to the Egyptian Government and expressed grave concern at the considerable number of British subjects who had been the victims of assaults during attacks on foreigners in the preceding few days. How many British people were the subjects of these attacks, and what redress have British subjects obtained as the result of this protest?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also say the number of British subjects and the amount of property subjected to sequestration by the Egyptian Government, and whether any redress has been obtained by the victims of these measures? It is inevitable in a debate of this kind that the name of Don Pacifico should be brought up. He was a British subject of the Jewish race from Gibraltar and was ill-treated, as Palmerston considered, by the Greek Government. Palmerston took steps which are perhaps in keeping with the modern age. He did react vigorously to the ill-treatment of a British subject and quotes the famous saying "Civis Romanus sum." The other sphere in which British subjects have been submitted to treatment which should call forth vigorous protest on our part is when entering or leaving Egypt, or going through it, during a voyage, say, to the Far East from this country.

One subject I have not raised with the right hon. Gentleman before is the Egyptian rule that no foreigner can leave Egypt without getting an exit permit. In practice, for a considerable time Jews were not allowed to leave the country even if they were of British nationality, and even if they had no connection with Egypt. I do not know what the position is today. Two names were given to me, one, that of a Mr. Rofe, who went to Egypt on a visit—he had formerly been connected with Egypt, though he was not then—and was not allowed out of the country because he was of the Jewish race. The other was of a South African lady who experienced most unpleasant incidents when she tried to go back to South Africa after a visit to Egypt. She was first turned back and told she could not leave because she was Jewish, and on the second occasion, when all her papers were in order, she was detained for a few hours while the authority was checked.

The other aspect of this concerns the measures which the Egyptian authorities have thought fit to take against passengers of the Jewish race in British ships and aeroplanes, and presumably other foreign craft too. It is a most disgraceful thing that the captains of our ships and aeroplanes should be made to distinguish between one British subject and another in the matter of race. In one instance, I think the case of Mr. Clements, I presume an undergraduate of Magdalen College, differences arose on whether the captain should or should not disclose the presence of what are called "baptised Jews." This is a position that we ought not to tolerate. Passengers with Jewish names were called together by the captain of the ship, who pointed out that the Egyptians would not allow the Jews to land although the Christians could, do so, and asked for their passports. In another instance—the case was taken up by an hon. Member—Mr. Waley Cohen was concerned, and also there was the case of Mrs. Bacon. The cases are all the same, the Egyptians discriminating against British subjects of the Jewish race by not allowing them to land, submitting them to extra interrogation, and restricting their liberties.

The object of raising this matter on the Adjournment is to find out what the present position is, and to suggest that, perhaps by reason of question of higher policy, the British Commissioner in Cairo has not been sufficiently strongly instructed to make sufficiently energetic protests to the Egyptian Government about these measures directed against British subjects. And as I said, in measures which affect British subjects, Jews and non-Jews, although these are inevitable because of the relations between Egypt and Israel, the British subjects of the Jewish race have suffered very much more than those of the non-Jewish races.

I would draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the fact that it is reported by the head of one of the British relief organisations in Cairo that there is a very large measure of unemployment in the last two months, especially of British subjects not of United Kingdom origin. That is causing great anxiety. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any information as to what measures are being taken to repatriate British subjects if they have homes; and in the case of British subjects in the Middle East who have no connection except with the Middle East, what steps are being taken about them, because the Egyptians have made it so that it is very difficult for the ordinary foreigner to make a living.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman could say something about the treatment which is being meted out to British shipping in the Canal at the present time. I understand they are liable to be held up as long as 10 days, and made to discharge a large part of their cargoes, which involves enormous expense. Why is this being done, and what steps are being taken to stop it?

The Minister of State (Mr. McNeil):

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) was good enough to let me know most of the ground he was going to cover, but I think, Mr. Speaker, you will agree, even if I were going to occupy the full 15 minutes left to me, it would be very difficult to answer in detail. I want to say at once that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and His Majesty's Government have been exceedingly displeased by these improprieties and indignities visited upon British subjects, and by these incidents directed against British shipping.

While I agree that in most cases action seems to have been taken against British subjects of Jewish origin, His Majesty's Government have not allowed that to affect their attitude at all. These people, whether of Jewish, Cypriot, or Maltese origin, are British subjects, and we have our obligations towards them. We have not been at all backward in the discharge of those obligations, but I do not think the hon. Gentleman expects us to use Gladstonian methods in the days of the Security Council.

We cannot condone the action which the Government of Egypt have, from time to time over the last 12 or 18 months, taken against these subjects, but while we could not condone and do not excuse it, it is understandable why at times they took some unusual steps against some of these people. They were improper steps, but there was a period of emergency, and emergency measures were to be expected. Secondly, there are in Egypt some 25,000 British subjects, many of them Cypriots and Maltese, I agree. While the list to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention is not unsubstantial, the thing is out of focus. There has been no wholesale discrimination against British subjects, but I do not want for a moment to suggest that we otherwise than disapprove most strongly of these incidents.

It might be convenient if I tried to group them in the fashion in which the hon. Gentleman did. There is first the question of British subjects affected by legislation to which he drew attention, which dates from July, 1947. It provides that in all grades of business the directors, executives, workmen, a percentage, in the case of ordinary workmen, 90 per cent., must be Egyptian. The percentages have to be attained over a period of three years. That has occasioned widespread unemployment among British subjects which is accentuated by the cessation of the employment which our military forces offered particularly to British subjects in Egypt, during their temporary residence there.

We have done what was within our power to deal with these unemployed people on decisions taken two years ago. In the case of Cypriots, the Government of Cyprus have provided for repatriation, and His Majesty's Government have assisted the process which is going normally. In relation to Maltese, the situation is much more complex. Overpopulation of Malta has not permitted repatriation to be carried out. Some of the Maltese, with their unusual qualifications, we have been able to absorb in employment in the United Kingdom. The Australian Government have been very helpful, and there has been a not inconsiderable movement of these Maltese from Egypt to Australia. Shipping has been the bottleneck. Some 60 people, my recollection is, have already been removed, and the shipping position is improving a little.

In relation to our unemployed people, that is people of United Kingdom origin, there has been a steady movement back home and they are being assisted where necessary by our Consular officers. I should perhaps mention that there has been destitution among these unemployed people, particularly among those of Maltese origin. We issued instructions to Consular offices some time ago to afford some measure of relief to these people. I have not recent figures, but I believe that in the past year some £5,000 has been spent in the process. I do not suggest that that is sufficient. I offer it as evidence that we are doing what lies within our power to see that the sharp edge of hardship is avoided.

I cannot pretend that it lies within the competence of the Government to take any ambitious steps there. This legislation discriminating against our subjects is not confined to Egypt. It is a shortsighted policy, and I am sure that many of these developing countries will quite soon have to admit that they are robbing themselves of technical knowledge which in many instances they cannot match from their own sources. The other types of discrimination, none of which is excusable, can be reasonably characterised as being anti-Semitic. I thought the hon. Gentleman was rather sweeping in suggesting that this was a wholesale process.

For example, there is the suggestion that there was a normal method of interfering with United Kingdom subjects of Jewish origin in their passage through the Canal. I have a note of only three occasions in which this happened. I do not suggest for a second that in any case was it excusable. What happened was that when Egypt was involved in hostilities, the Egyptian police had emergency powers by which they sought to find out from the masters of ships whether there were any people of Jewish origin, and they took steps to try to prevent such people from surreptitiously leaving the ships and making for Egyptian soil. In two cases, passports were removed and, of course, the Government felt that we had to make immediate representation about that. But we were badly handicapped because, as the hon. Gentleman will recollect, the instances were not brought to our notice at the time and there was difficulty in ascertaining the facts.

With regard to the unjustified interference with the freedom of British subjects, I think it is a little picturesque to talk about the knocking at the door. I know of only one case where a British subject was searched at his house at night. Here again, there was a great delay. This took place last November but the facts were not brought to my notice until last February, when we made such protest as we could. The next type of offence was the sequestration of British property. In one case we did manage to have the sequestration removed but there are two other cases, one involving one British subject, and another involving two British subjects. In these cases we have not been successful, but the matter has been actively pressed in London and in Cairo.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about the arrests. Twenty British subjects were arrested during this emergency ordinance. In consequence of our representations 15 have been released. Five are still detained. We think this most serious and an opportunity was afforded me in Paris to see His Excellency the Egyptian Foreign Minister and I put the case as strongly as I possibly could. Our Ambassador has made protests, three written and one oral, and he will return immediately to these five cases. We have constantly engaged ourselves with this subject and will bring all proper measures to bear upon the Egyptian Government. I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject and to say that I appreciate the cases to which he refers and assure him that we are not inactive.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Two o'Clock a.m.